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Learning languages

September 3, 2014

With increasing press coverage of polyglots and hyperpolyglots in recent years, it has been brought to my attention that I am apparently what is called a hyperpolyglot, even if one only considers fluency in terms of speaking rather than reading. To judge by the news stories, I should be making ridiculous amounts of money explaining to people how I do it. Unfortunately, nobody likes my answer because I contend it only gets to be easy after years of intensive study, the kind that will earn a person at least one university degree; then even when it does get easy that just means one has accumulated lots of experience and knows exactly how and where to put in the hard work so that the hard work ends up minimized. The promises of quick and easy language acquisition for everyone seems to be what make the money.

So I thought I would start in a series of posts describing my history of learning languages. I can’t say how many languages I know anymore, since I think of language fluency in terms of reading them with ease and can often do that with languages I’ve not encountered before if they are similar enough (from a philological perspective at least) to ones I already know. Still, I can certainly discuss the ones I know that I know and how. I suppose that this post though will be an introduction to that history.

A woman in a traditional Icelandic costume tea...

A woman in a traditional Icelandic costume teaches a child to read. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everybody has strengths and weaknesses in learning or for that matter any endeavor. As a former teacher, I firmly believe that, barring extraordinary circumstances, anyone can with the right effort, support and materials can learn virtually anything (although that may have to start with prerequisite fields). The key is finding the way that works best for each individual. My job as a teacher was in my opinion at least to do my best to present the material and as much as possible to help my students find the way of learning that material which worked best for them. Apart from doing that, I mostly just cheered them on. In my own case, I was having my own teachers, etc., whispering about me (where they thought I couldn’t hear) as a “mathematical genius” since I was five years old. Mathematics is fundamentally the study and manipulation of patterns for any arbitrary objects, including but not only including numbers. Thus, I learn best by seeking on and using the patterns underlying whatever the subject happened to be. When sciences or history were taught as a set of disjointed facts to be memorized, invariably I did terribly (at least by my standards). Equally invariably when these same fields were taught through the patterns of the science’s logical framework or the history’s interweaving chains of events creating a story of the sweep of history, I excelled at them. Hence for me a philological approach to languages predicated on a system of functional grammar, phonological shifts, changing syntax and evolving morphology is absolutely ideal. I can read and understand or even hear and understand any Romance or Germanic language, for example, because to me they are all variations on a theme, and I know that theme so well from hard work and experience that it has become like music embedded in my subconscious.

Still passive understanding is always easier than active manipulation of the patterns. Unbroken patterns without variation are boring and inhuman. Language does not work like that because humans do not think like that. Every natural language will have its idiosyncrasies, and any artificial language without them will develop them if people actually use it. Therein lies much of the fun of learning languages. One cannot learn a language without also learning a culture nor vice-versa. The fun is less in the learning than in the using of languages. Reading the great books from a perspective as close as possible to that a native of the language for each work of literature would have is for me the ultimate reward in language learning. So I gear my language learning to the things in the target language I most want to read. I tend to not bother with languages without good books  I know of in them. Often though that reflects my ignorance of the literature more than the language itself.

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